Disaster looms around corners of Snowmass Canyon | AspenTimes.com

Disaster looms around corners of Snowmass Canyon

Pitkin County sheriff’s deputy Brady Jax was standing on the shoulder of Highway 82 in Snowmass Canyon checking on the welfare of two accident victims Saturday when he got a funny feeling.Jax’s instincts as an emergency responder told him they were in danger. Indeed they were.A split second after his sixth sense started tingling, Jax saw out of the corner of his eye cars careening toward them. He told the two teens standing beside him to jump while he vaulted over the guardrail on the Roaring Fork River side of the highway.”Luckily it was just 4 feet [to the ground] rather than 40 feet, like in some places,” Jax said.All three were unscathed, as was Basalt police officer George Dow, who hopped the guardrail just a few feet farther upvalley.They might have been safe up on the shoulder, but the incident was perilously close to disaster. Again.High speeds and slippery conditions have caused numerous crashes this winter in the narrow, sun-starved canyon, said sheriff’s deputies and Basalt emergency workers, who cover crashes in the canyon. And it’s creating hazardous situations for them.”We’ve had so many crashes in the canyon this winter they’re all meshing together,” Basalt Fire Chief Scott Thompson said. “I hate to say it, but somebody is going to get killed.”The latest incident occurred when a car with two valley teens hit a slick spot about 1 p.m. Saturday, brushed the guardrail and ended up disabled around a sweeping right curve.Drivers often have a false sense of security approaching the canyon on a dry straightaway, said Thompson, speaking generally and not about a specific crash. They often travel well in excess of the posted 50 mph speed limit when they negotiate the serpentine twists and turns around mile marker 30, he said.On many days this snow-packed winter, high temperatures melt the snow and cover the roads with water. As the sun sinks and the land bridges of the upvalley lanes shade downvalley lanes, the water freezes.What starts out as a one-car crash often turns into a multivehicle pileup. “The rest of the pack comes in, sees the accident but they can’t stop,” Thompson said. “People are driving too fast for the canyon, and that’s why they’re crashing.”While checking on the single-car crash Saturday, Dow parked his cruiser in a way he intended to slow traffic and prevent traffic from plowing into the disabled vehicle. Jax pulled his car in front of Dow’s. After checking out the wreck and finding the teens unhurt, the officers agreed they needed to get out of the precarious spot as soon as it was safe.Before they could take action, three vehicles rounding the curve spun out of control. “That’s when all the crashing and bashing started,” Jax said. The vehicles “pinballed” off the guardrails on either side of the road, he said. One smashed into the Basalt police car.No one was injured, but three of the vehicles were damaged enough to require tows, Jax said.One month earlier, a different Pitkin County deputy sheriff’s vehicle was damaged heavily when two cars rammed it in similar circumstances.Statistics on the number of crashes weren’t immediately available, but one Basalt firefighter said there have been three five-vehicle crashes in about the last month. Thompson said there have been several other crashes with fewer vehicles involved and six or so that the department didn’t respond to because there were no injuries.Highway 82 expanded to four lanes through Snowmass Canyon in 2004. There weren’t nearly as many crashes last winter, but there wasn’t nearly this much snow, Thompson noted.Speed remains a constant problem, several authorities agreed. Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis said his department has asked the Colorado Department of Transportation to lower the speed limit to 45 mph in one stretch of the canyon. He acknowledged that enforcement is nearly impossible because stationing a cruiser there is potentially dangerous, and stopping vehicles in the canyon is foolhardy.Thompson said a radar camera might be the only tool that works. A camera could clock traffic without putting anyone in jeopardy.Braudis said CDOT also needs to revisit the road design in that area. Water drains across the road and is susceptible to freezing, he said.CDOT spokeswoman Nancy Shanks said the department has triggered a traffic and safety analysis at the request of the Colorado State Patrol. The study will take place in February.The agency will examine accident reports and also spend time in the field looking at speeds, the distances that drivers are leaving between vehicles, sight distances and traffic volumes, Shanks said. That will help determine what changes, if any, are warranted, she said.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com

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